Mazda MX-5 Cup: Unser and Little keep improving at Road America
The spectacular Mazda MX-5 Cup was back after a long break: Hixon Motor Sports' Loni Unser and Savanna Little continued to show their ongoing improvements, as Unser was close to a point-scoring finish in race 2.
The Mazda MX-5 Cup was back after a long summer break for the ninth and tenth rounds out of the 14 races scheduled for the 2021 season. Gresham Wagner (Spark Performance) entered as the championship leader, ahead of Selin Rollan (Hixon Motor Sports). Hixon Motor Sports - owned by Bryan Hixon and managed by former W Series racer Shea Holbrook - is steadily establishing itself as a benchmark in the series and, within its racing program, is planning to increase the female participation in the series. Two female drivers are competing full time for the team, which has entered as high as four female competitors at the season opener. Loni Unser returns in the #92 machine after her heavy crash at Mid-Ohio, where she broke her left foot. "Had a big one" -- she wrote after the crash. "It was going to be a great race, but unfortunately I just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time", she explained. But that didn't stop her from racing during the following months after her recovery, and now the 23-year old is fully back in shape for the remainder of her rookie campaign in the Mazda MX-5 Cup. Alongside Unser, Savanna Little returned behind the wheel of the #63 VP Racing machine and was ready to restart: "As always, looking forward to the opportunity to improve my pace and race craft with this Mazda MX-5 Cup field full of talent!"
The qualifying session that would set the grid for Race 1 saw Loni Unser in 15th place and Savanna 19th fastest, while their experienced teammate Rollan qualified his HMS Mazda on pole, ahead of Hernan Palermo (Slipstream Performance) and his championship opponent Gresham Wagner. Rollan was able to defend his lead at the start, but an early Safety Car phase neutralized the race for a stranded car. At the restart, it was Palermo who launched his attack to pass Rollan and the Argentinian led his first laps in the action-packed series. But the battle was far from over: a six cars train, nose-to-tail, were waiting for their time to make the move up to the front. Rollan was back into the lead soon after and defended hard, before the HMS driver could create a small gap as the battle behind him heated up. He took the chequered flag 0.575 seconds ahead of Wagner, who was followed by Sam Paley (McCumbee McAleer Racing) in third. Rollan´s victory was the fourth win of the season for the Hixon Motor Sport team and puts Rollan in third position of a closely-fought championship. Loni Unser finished 14th after close battles in the midfield. She wasn't happy with her day, as she said: "Finished P14 today. Honestly, I'm not very happy with the way I drove. Some days seem to be like that, but all I can do is learn." "Car ran great and we had a good setup! Huge thanks as always to Hixon Motor Sports.", she added. Rookie Savanna Little, who is also the 2020 Female Mazda Shootout Winner and is sponsored by VP Racing Fuels, showed encouraging progress from session to session and finished 17th.
"Race 1 was interesting - rain on the front half of the track, totally dry elsewehere" - she wrote. "Making progress here at Road America; getting a lot right but not where I want to see myself on the leaderboard so I’ll keep digging." - she added.
The starting order for Race 2 was similar to Race 1 - but with Wagner ahead of Rollan and Aaron Jeansonne (Provision Motorsports LLC). Loni Unser started from P14 and Savanna from P20 as they tackled the final race of the weekend on the iconic North American racetrack. And Race 2 was yet another proof of why this series is one of the most competitive and propaedeutic on the IMSA ladder: with an insane finish, Michael Carter and Sam Paley were separated by only 0.008 seconds across the finish line, as Carter took the victory and preceded Paley and Rollan - one tenth of a second further behind. Coming from eighth position on the grid, Carter moved up with patience and overtook one car after the other until the top positions, with the lead trading hands until the chequered flag, as a huge group of cars were looking to make the most of the slipstream out of the final corner. Carter was the one to make his move just at the right time on the last corner of the last lap and to win the drag race with Paley at the photo finish in one of the closest margins. Rollan followed and added more important points for his title chase. HMS' driver Loni Unser, who also represents the Word of Honor Fund and The Peregrine Fund, was a bit more satisfied with her race on Saturday: "P12 today. I had a great start, and I was around tenth place, but made a horrible mistake and tried to shoot a gap that didn’t exist in the corner that led onto the front straight, causing me to get freight trained by most of the field." - she summed up. "After swearing to myself all the way down the front straight I decided I was never going to make that mistake again! After that, I caught my way back up as far as I could. Anyways, it is always such a great time racing in this series, and I cannot wait to do it again in about a month." Savanna Little had a more troubled race, as she had contact with another driver in the early stages and wasn't able to bring the car home across the finish line. "Today’s Race 2 was off to a great start, running up a few positions at P14 until another driver took me out in the Carousel", she said. "Pushed the #63 MX-5 Cup car as hard as I could for 12 laps with a debeaded left front tire and diabolical rear alignment after the contact. Even managed to gain a few positions back after a full course yellow bunched the field up again. Unfortunately, something in the rear suspension let go in Turn 8 and forced me to retire the car."
Both ladies will bounce back at Laguna Seca from 11th to 12th September, for the penultimate round of the 2021 season.